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Illiteracy and Schooling in the Provincial Towns, 1640–1870: A Comparative Approach

ByW. B. Stephens

Of mid-eighteenth-century British towns the two capital cities, London and Edinburgh, alone had populations of over 50 000, and only 20 per cent of our ancestors at that time, lived in towns of more than 5000 inhabitants. Between then and the beginning of the nineteenth century, Britain became the first urbanized society of the modern world, with a fifth of its citizens living in towns of 10 000 or more inhabitants. By 1801 there were eight towns with populations over 50 000; by 1851, 29 such centres accounted for a third of the nation’s inhabitants. In mid century the aggregate urban population exceeded the rural population for the first time, though it is true by only 1 per cent. 1 These changes represented a profound development, not only in the demographic structure of society, but also in its way of life and in the social conditions of its members.